SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly officially opens practice in preparation for the 2018 baseball season Friday afternoon, exactly three weeks prior to the season opener.
The Mustangs will gather at 1:30 p.m. inside a Baggett Stadium facility undergoing numerous construction projects, including new netting for the backstop and permanent bleacher seats that will raise the capacity to 3,138. Construction of the two-story Dignity Health Baseball Clubhouse project is expected to begin in March.
Cal Poly lost six players, four of them juniors, to the Major League Baseball Draft after its historic 47-win season in 2014. Six more players were selected in the 2015 draft and the Mustangs lost two underclass pitchers — redshirt sophomore Spencer Howard and junior Erich Uelmen — following the 2017 campaign.
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee feels the 2018 Mustang squad will exhibit the qualities of the 2013 and 2014 Mustang teams that posted back-to-back 40-victory seasons, a Big West Conference title in 2014 and a pair of NCAA regional appearances.
"We are working to get back to where we were in our back-to-back regional seasons a few years ago," said Lee. "There is a strong mixture of experience and youth but a talented mixture of experience and youth. We also feel that we shored up a number of areas that were lacking and getting back to where we were in terms of physicality, competitiveness and the quality of our players.
"We have a lot of options and several quality arms on the mound," added Lee, entering his 16th season at the helm of the Cal Poly baseball program after 16 successful campaigns at Cuesta College. "We're a much better defensive team than a year ago and we should be a much better offensive team."
The Mustangs are coming off a momentum-building end to the 2017 campaign, overcoming a 2-9 start by capturing seven of eight Big West series en route to a second-place conference finish. Cal Poly has finished in the top four of the Big West standings 13 times in Lee's previous 15 seasons with the Mustangs. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
Over the last six seasons from 2012-17, Cal Poly has won 210 games, the third-highest total among the 24 California schools with Division I baseball programs. Averaging 35 wins per season during those six campaigns, the victory total is seventh among 46 schools in the NCAA's West Region. In addition, from 2012-14, Cal Poly averaged 41 wins a year with 123 victories, more than any other Division I team in California, and the Mustangs have averaged 32 victories per season under Lee's guidance.
This spring, Lee welcomes back 19 letter winners, including eight position players who made 25 or more starts in 2017, and nine pitchers, six of whom pitched 25 or more innings. In addition, pitchers Jarred Zill and Thomas Triantos, both of whom underwent Tommy John surgery a year ago, are back and the Mustang coaching staff also has 13 newcomers to add to the mix, including two freshman infielders who likely will be in the starting lineup on Opening Day and as many as six first-year pitchers who are high on the preseason depth chart.
"We are strong up the middle with Nick Meyer behind the plate, Kyle Marinconz and Scott Ogrin in the middle of the infield and Alex McKenna in center field," noted Lee. "All have lots of game experience and each one of them has improved on the defensive side. You want to be strong up the middle and we are. They all understand how to play their positions.
"At the plate, hopefully the group we put out there will provide a stressful lineup for our opponents as we have a number of starters back from last year," Lee added. "As far as pitching, the big question is our ability to convert some of our successful relievers from last year into starting roles."
Though the Mustangs play their first eight games on the road, Cal Poly will play eight of its 15 weekend series at home this season, highlighted by non-conference sets against UCLA and San Diego State and Big West series against UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and defending conference champion Long Beach State.
Baggett Stadium will undergo numerous changes over the next two years. Permanent bleachers and a new pole-free backstop net will be in place by the home opener in early March and construction of the new two-story Dignity Health Baseball Clubhouse should begin in March.
A closer look at the 2018 Mustangs:
Last year's draft snared Howard (second round, Philadelphia Phillies) and Uelmen (fourth round, Chicago Cubs) along with senior reliever Slater Lee. With the Friday and Saturday starters gone, the focus of fall practice centered on preparing some of last year's relievers for new roles as weekend starters.
Junior right-hander Michael Clark, who compiled a 5-0 record, 11 saves and a 2.59 ERA a year ago en route to second-team All-Big West honors, and senior southpaw Trent Shelton (1-1, 2.30 ERA in 2017) are the top candidates as starters this spring. Clark was named to Collegiate Baseball's 2018 Preseason All-American second team while Shelton gave Mustang fans a glimpse of his potential as a starter when he allowed one earned run and eight hits over 13 innings with 13 strikeouts as Cal Poly's starter in the finale of the last two series of 2017 against UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
"Clark and Shelton provide us with a good combination of experience and should fit right in with a number of freshmen on the pitching staff," said Lee. "Both of them are competitors.
"Clark (pictured at left) is a ground ball pitcher with a sinker and a changeup with depth. He has developed a slider as well, attacks the zone and makes you put the ball in play. With our improved defense, especially on the left side of the diamond, that should play right into his hand. We're hoping he can make the jump from a plus reliever to the top of our starting rotation.
"Shelton (pictured at right) has worked really hard to get to where he is at. Along with his fastball and a plus slider, he has worked hard to develop a changeup. He should have the ability to throw three plus pitches."
That leaves the Sunday and midweek starting slots to fill. Among the candidates are Zill, who was a starter during the first three weekends last year before he was sidelined with the elbow injury requiring surgery; Bobby Ay, who started 11 games in 2017 but finished 1-6 with a 5.40 ERA; Connor Redmond, who pitched just 9 1/3 innings as a freshman a year ago; and two freshmen — William Adair from Dallas, Texas, and Darren Nelson from Granite Bay High School northeast of Sacramento. All five are right-handers.
"We have a number of pitchers we're looking at to shore down the other two starting spots," said Lee. "We have some good options and good internal competition. Hopefully the players we don't choose to be in the starting rotation will be part of a very strong relief corps, which we will need. I don't see our starters throwing a high number of pitches per outing, so a solid group out of the bullpen is a must for us."
Zill was granted a medical redshirt and will be a junior this spring.
"The wild card is Zill," Lee said of the Capistrano Valley High School graduate who made seven Sunday starts and finished with a 4-3 record and 2.79 ERA as a sophomore in 2016 and was 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA as a freshman in 2015 with seven starts and five relief appearances. "It would change the dynamics of our staff if we get him back 100 percent. Jarred is well ahead of the Tommy John surgery schedule. If we can get him into the weekend starting rotation at some point, he will really help bolster our staff."
The relief corps is led by right-handers Austin Dondanville and Cam Schneider along with southpaws Kyle Smith and Triantos. Four freshmen also are contending for innings out of the bullpen — righties Dylan Villalobos and Taylor Dollard and lefties Andrew Alvarez and Matt Arens.
"Going into the season, our pitching has the most unknowns," Lee admitted, "but it's a good combination of returners and quality freshmen."
After a freshman campaign in which he hit .301, threw out 22 base runners trying to steal and picked off 10 other runners en route to second-team All-Big West and conference Freshman Field Player of the Year honors, Meyer (pictured at left) earned second-team All-Big West accolades again as a sophomore after catching 18 would-be base stealers (second in the Big West) and picking off four other runners (No. 1 in the Big West).
A member of USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team last summer, Meyer was first in the Big West and 41st in the nation as a freshman and first in the conference and 46th in the country as a sophomore in toughest to strike out, fanning once every 12.5 at-bats in both seasons.
"We are lucky to have one of the better defensive catchers in the country in Meyer," said Lee. "He is a very good receiver, blocker and thrower.
"The one thing that separates him from the rest of the college catchers is his baseball IQ," Lee added. "He is very smart, handles the pitchers well and makes them better."
Myles Emmerson and John Mackay, both sophomores, will back up Meyer. Emmerson played in 20 games with 10 starts a year ago, hitting .200, while Mackay was a redshirt last year due to injury after hitting .409 in one season at Palomar College in 2016.
With Ogrin and Marinconz stationed in the middle, the Mustang infield likely also will include a pair of freshmen.
Tate Samuelson, a career .351 hitter at Serra High School in San Diego tops the preseason depth chart at first base while Nick DiCarlo, a 372 hitter as a senior, .457 as a junior and .475 as a sophomore at Arcadia High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is the leading candidate at third base.
"Samuelson brings a defensive component to our infield," said Lee. "He is a solid third baseman but we need to use his defensive skills at first base along with his bat. He will be a good addition from an offensive standpoint and eventually will hit for power. Tate had a great fall and we're looking for him to evolve physically as well."
Senior Elijah Skipps, who hit .252 with four home runs and 24 RBI a year ago, will back up Samuelson and also is a top candidate as the designated hitter.
"Skipps is battling back from elbow surgery he had in the offseason," said Lee. "He's not quite as healthy from a throwing standpoint, but has power with the bat and turned the corner in the last half of the season a year ago."
DiCarlo can play most of the infield positions.
"Nick is a very good defender at third, shortstop and second," said Lee. "He has good hands and is an accurate thrower. He touches the ball at the plate and will continue to get stronger and develop as a hitter throughout the course of the year.
"With the addition of DiCarlo and Samuelson, both have a defensive component as freshmen that many of our recruits in the past have not exhibited in their first year here," Lee added.
Marinconz (pictured at right) hit .273 and led the team with 13 doubles and 32 RBI on his way to first-team All-Big West accolades. He opened the 2017 season with 14 starts at second base before moving over to shortstop, solidifying the Mustang infield.
"Kyle played extremely well last year defensively, making just seven errors in 245 chances," said Lee. "He was the leader of our infield and, offensively, has really developed into a more patient hitter and is driving the ball better than ever."
As a freshman, Ogrin started nine games in right field, five as the designated hitter and three at first base before settling into his job at second base a year ago with 29 starts, helping the Mustangs rebound from 2-9 and 8-16 starts. He hit .217 overall, but elevated his average with a .278 mark in Big West games.
"Ogrin is a good game defender with a strong arm," said Lee. "He has the ability to turn a double play. He needs to continue to develop as a hitter and he showed signs of hitting for power last year."
Redshirt sophomore Dylan Doherty will back up both Ogrin and Marinconz in the middle of the infield while sophomore Jack Kuzma will back up DiCarlo at third base. Doherty underwent shoulder surgery and missed the entire 2017 season after playing in 28 games with 18 starts at second base, shortstop and designated hitter as a true freshman in 2016.
"Doherty has really improved and has the ability to play shortstop, second and third. Kuzma has shown an ability to play defense and is trying to add strength to help him on the offensive side."
McKenna (pictured at top of page), a first-team All-Big West outfielder a year ago after hitting .360 with 11 doubles, five home runs, 13 steals and 31 RBI as a sophomore, anchors the Mustang outfield this spring after a solid summer in the Cape Cod League with Yarmouth-Dennis.
Senior Josh George will be in left field, where he started 46 games a year ago, in his final season as a Mustang while right field, which had six different starters in 2017, is expected to be shared by sophomore Bradlee Beesley and senior Colby Barrick.
"McKenna is coming off a very good season for us, and playing in the Cape allowed him to see power arms on a daily basis, which has really helped him develop as a hitter," said Lee. "Hitting from the leadoff spot is where it starts, and Alex has the ability not only to hit for average, but also for power. He is the leader of our outfield group and continues to improve on the defensive side."
McKenna was Cal Poly's leadoff hitter over the final 43 games of the 2017 season and produced a team-leading 30 multiple-hit games, including 11 three-hit contests. He also led the Mustangs with 10 multiple-RBI games.
George was a .249 hitter a year ago with nine doubles, seven steals and 24 RBI.
"Josh had a great fall and this is the first time since he's been here that he's been really healthy," Lee said. "He has had shoulder issues ever since his junior year in high school, but looks great now. He has made himself into a good defender and swung the bat well in the fall."
A second-team All-Big West honoree as a freshman in 2017, Beesley (pictured at left) started in six different positions, including 24 games at third base, and hit .305 with 13 doubles, three triples and 14 RBI, mostly from the second spot in the batting order. Barrick started 24 games in right field and hit .303 with 14 RBI as well.
"We made the change late in the fall to have Beesley concentrate solely on the outfield," said Lee. "The added practice time should help him develop defensively. He had a real good freshman year offensively and we're hoping he will be able to handle his role in the top three in the batting order.
"Barrick gained a lot of experience last year as a left-handed hitter and a solid defender," Lee added.
The roster also includes two freshman outfielders in Blake Wagenseller from Poway High School in San Diego County and Cole Cabrera, a graduate of Punahou High School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Wagenseller was a career .362 hitter in four varsity seasons as a third baseman and center fielder at Poway while Cabrera was a four-year varsity letter winner at Punahou and twice earned All-Interscholastic League honors.
"Wagenseller is another freshman who has shown promise with the bat," said Lee. "He is very strong and physical, a plus runner and is getting better each day defensively. Cabrera is a good runner and we are hoping he can be our center fielder of the future."
Wagenseller also is a candidate as Cal Poly's designated hitter.
A total of 16 games against 2017 NCAA Regional participants, a pair of home stands of at least seven games, 30 home games in all and four contests against Pac-12 schools highlight the 2018 Cal Poly baseball schedule.
After playing their first eight games on the road, Cal Poly will play 11 of its next 15 contests at Baggett Stadium, including three-game series against San Diego State and Dartmouth plus a four-game set against Pacific.
The Mustangs open the 57-game season with a pair of tournaments, playing Oregon State, Gonzaga and New Mexico in the Surprise (Ariz.) Tournament and Arkansas, Grand Canyon and Michigan in the Tony Gwynn Legacy hosted by San Diego State.
Cal Poly opens Big West play with six games on the road -- three each at CSUN and Cal State Fullerton -- but will play four of the next five conference series at home against UC Davis, Long Beach State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.
Cal Poly also will visit Hawai'i and UC Riverside and, during its bye week in the conference schedule, will host UCLA for a three-game non-conference series.
"The 2018 schedule will be another challenging one," said Lee. "There is a good mixture of quality series opponents as well as two strong early season tournaments where we get to play at neutral sites."
The teams Cal Poly will play who qualified for the 2017 NCAA regionals are Nebraska (four games), Long Beach State (three games), UCLA (three games), Cal State Fullerton (three games) and Oregon State (one game) as well as Arkansas and Michigan in the Tony Gwynn Legacy.